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Microsoft selects SIS for Xbox chipset

Taiwanese chipmaker Silicon Integrated Systems will help create input/output chips for the Xbox, another significant step in the makeover of Microsoft's gaming box.

Taiwanese chipmaker Silicon Integrated Systems will help create input/output chips for the Xbox, another significant step in the makeover of Microsoft's gaming box.

SIS is one of the leading manufacturers of PC chipsets, which shuttle data between the processor and the rest of the computer. Although the announcement was slightly vague, the two companies said in their release that SIS would develop "advanced media input/output technologies for use in future Xbox products and services."

With the SIS deal, Microsoft seems to be on track to completely overhaul the significant silicon inside its gaming console. The first version of the Xbox came with a modified Pentium III processor from Intel, a graphics chip from Nvidia and an input/output chip from Nvidia.

Now, Microsoft is working with Nvidia rival ATI Technologies on graphics, with IBM on the processor and with SIS on the chipset. Memory is the only major piece of silicon Microsoft has not yet said it will overhaul. The Xbox currently uses standard PC memory. By contrast, Sony relies on memory that's based on designs from Rambus for its PlayStation console.

"We're integrating SIS' cutting-edge, media I/O technologies into future products to create innovative Xbox products and services that serve the digital entertainment lifestyle." Todd Holmdahl, general manager of Xbox hardware, said in a statement.

Changing partners comes with advantages and risks, said Kevin Krewell, senior editor of The Microprocessor Report. On one hand, Microsoft will get access to a broad new portfolio of intellectual property it can use to fashion customized chips for its console.

Switching partners can also clear away some of the bad feelings that arose in regard to the first Xbox. For Intel, supplying 733-MHz Pentium IIIs to Microsoft had become a low-margin business, Krewell said. Nvidia and Microsoft, meanwhile, went to arbitration over their contract. At the time, Nvidia was afraid that it would get stuck with unusable chips or have to sell parts at a loss.

"After the first go-around, everyone walked away pretty unhappy," Krewell said.

On the other hand, Microsoft will likely have to retool its software. Microsoft picked Intel (over rival Advanced Micro Devices in a hotly contested contract) so that Xbox games would be compatible with the underlying Windows code base. By contrast, IBM's processor technology revolves around its PowerPC chip family, which is used to run Unix-derived software.

Time is also tight. Sony has been working with IBM and Toshiba on the Cell processor, which is expected to be inside a future version of the PlayStation, among other products. The three have been working on Cell since early 2001. Cell processors won't come out until late 2005 or early 2006.